2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Driving Impressions

We'll get the Overland with the Hemi V8 out of the way first, because it's not our tested model, and we didn't enjoy it as much as the Laredo X with the new V6 engine. The Overland V8, with its estimated 13-19 mpg and base price of more than $44,000 with 4WD and before options, would have been more of a hit in 2006. About the only thing you'd need that big Hemi for is its 390 pound-feet of torque for towing more than 5000 pounds.

The Overland V8 ride is also firmer on 20-inch tires, steering is heavier and less responsive on the highway, leather seats less comfortable (on the pre-production model we drove; they were still fine-tuning the seats), and the chrome trim detracts from the cleanliness of the styling. Plus, ours had a vibration we felt in the small of our back, under acceleration in second gear Sport mode. That's the only time it appeared, but it wasn't our imagination, our passenger felt it too. We can't say what it means, but it shouldn't be there.

There are two automatic transmissions with manual modes, both called 5-speeds, but one was a 5-speed with overdrive and the other without. The overdrive increases gas mileage, but it kicks down out of overdrive frequently, around town. Maybe the problem is that it's programmed to go into overdrive too soon.

The chassis itself is 146 percent stiffer than before, stiffer than a BMW X5, with a redesigned structure, new improved steels and structural adhesives, and more than 5400 welds in the body, for a 53 percent increase in spot welds and 42 percent increase in arc welds. This is certainly one key to the feel of overall quality. When you combine a well executed new independent suspension, the result is a vehicle that feels like a Mercedes. In fact, design of the Grand Cherokee began in Germany four years ago, when Chrysler was still Daimler-Chrysler, and some components are shared with the Mercedes ML SUV.

We put our Grand Cherokee Laredo through the paces, on patchy San Francisco freeways, city streets, and through some curves on the Pacific Coast Highway, and the vehicle knocked off each challenge with ease, comfort and control. We were highly impressed with the chassis and suspension. You'll hear Chrysler say in their marketing that quality craftsmanship has returned to the Pentastar, and the Grand Cherokee backs up the boast. The chief engineer for the Grand Cherokee worked with the Mercedes engineers in Stuttgart to gain ideas for the architecture and suspension geometry. Then the Grand Cherokee went through more final testing than was done in the past to refine the vehicle to as close as perfect as they could get it.

Almost amazingly, the turning circle remains at the same 37.1 feet as the old Grand Cherokee, despite the 5-inch increase in wheelbase. This doesn't happen without a lot of suspension thought and work. It means nimble around-town handling, and parking that's no more difficult.

The all-new V6 feels like a winner, too. It's a double-overhead cam 3.6-liter with variable valve timing, making 290 horsepower (up 38 percent over the old V6) and 260 pound-feet of torque (up 11 percent), delivering 17 city and 23 highway miles per gallon with 2WD, or 1 mpg less with 4WD. A larger fuel tank of 24.6 gallons allows a range of 500 miles.

The engine is silky smooth and powerful, and will be around for a long time. Jeep says they've got no fewer than 12 applications planned for it.

We went to an off-road course during our one-day drive, and, needless to say, the Jeep was fairly dazzling. We climbed over rocks and through gulleys and crept down radically steep hillsides, terrain far more challenging than owners will want to put their pretty new Grand Cherokees through.

The Jeeps we drove were equipped with the optional Quadra-Lift air suspension that adds up to 4.1 inches of lift, using controls on the console. There are five settings: Normal ride height, with 8.1 inches of ground clearance; Off-road 1, with 9.4 inches; Off-road 2, with 10.7 inches; Park, which lowers the vehicle to 6.6 inches for loading and unloading; and Aero, at 7.5 inches, for freeway driving and better fuel economy.

On the off-road course, Selec-Terrain electronically coordinated up to 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems, including throttle control, transmission shift, transfer case, traction control, and electronic stability control. What this means is that a monkey could have driven the Jeep over these terrain challenges. The computers did it all. For example, down the dizzying steep dirt trail, with Hill Descent Control, all we did was keep the steering wheel straight, using no feet at all; the car's computers did it all. And all we did to get over the rocks was gently apply the gas, and wait until the sensors made adjustments to allow the slipping wheels to find their traction.

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